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Report: IM Abuse Is Rampant In Workplace

A study of instant-messaging abuse at work concludes that IM ultimately may cause more business problems than it solves.

InformationWeek Staff

September 17, 2003

3 Min Read

Whatever it is that workers are doing with instant messaging, work is far down the list, a security company said in a study released Wednesday.

Abusive language, gossip, sexual advances and complaints are among the chief uses of instant messaging in the workplace, the company found during a survey of U.S. and U.K workers with access to IM applications.

The consequences of IM abuse loom large for business, said the report's authors, secure proxy company Blue Coat Systems. The firm offers content filtering, instant-messaging control, and virus scanning, among other services. Among the potential problems cause by IM abuse: lost productivity, potential exposure to litigation, compliance violations, risk of leaking confidential information, attachment of viruses, and transmission of links to illegal or malicious Web sites, among others.

"There are currently 40 million business users of IM, and there are genuine business benefits to the immediacy of IM," said Steve Mullaney, Blue Coat's marketing VP. "The technology is not going to go away. But left unchecked, instant messaging could ultimately cause more business problems than it solves."

None of which is keeping most employees from misusing IM, and misusing it in the strongest possible language. Widely popular IM clients, such as those from America Online, MSN, and Yahoo, are readily available for download. And while they're entrenched in everyday usage, they go largely unregulated in the business world.

Nearly half of those surveyed admitted to using abusive language in their IMs, with 80% owning up to instant gossiping on company time and across company networks. Also, 64% of respondents confessed to using IM to complain about management.

According to Blue Coat, barely a quarter of workers used IM exclusively for business purposes, while more than 65% used IM for personal communications while on the company clock.

Sex reared its IM head, too, with nearly a third of the survey's 300 respondents revealing that they had employed messaging software to make sexual advances.

Corporate intrigue looked to be even more popular than sex-talk, though, with close to 40% of respondents employing IM to "conspire with colleagues during conference calls," the company reported.

In Blue Coat's view, the widespread misuse of IM platforms stems at least in part from the generally uncontrolled and unregulated nature of the medium. While many organizations have strict E-mail, Internet, and download policies--and applications to monitor and enforce those policies--IM offers far more of an "anything goes" environment. That attitude is reinforced in the eyes of the 60% of respondents who believed that instant messaging can't be monitored at all.

Adding to the problem is the near-invisibility of instant messaging in the workplace. "Unlike telephone conversations, co-workers and supervisors don't really know when you're using IM," Mullaney said.

The simplicity of downloading IM applications plays a part as well: less than 40% of the survey-takers were subject to corporate download policies or restrictions.

The solution, from the company's point of view, is to make IM a full member of the enterprise IT club, subject to the same level of restriction, monitoring, and enforcement as E-mail, Internet use, and other better-established applications.

In addition to policy guidelines and controls, Blue Coat recommended implementing IM-logging as a means of increasing employee awareness of the long-lasting consequences of instant messages.

Blue Coat also recommended development of company policies regarding appropriate use of instant messaging, basing those polices on a "log it, manage it, control it" triad. The company also urged that legal advice be sought at each step of the policies' development and implementation, ensuring that those policies match other acceptable use regulations.

Blue Coat's report, "An Internet Usage Policy To Combat New Business Risks: E-mail May Be The Least Of Your Worries" is posted on the company's Web site.

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